MACKENZIE RYAN Statesman Journal
September 29, 2008
Within the past few years, early childhood development has become more of a focus at the local, state and national fronts — spurred by research in the past 15 years about how the brain develops.
“People started to pay attention,” said Tamra Goettsch, coordinator of Marion County’s early childhood initiative Great Beginnings, which includes literacy efforts. About 90 percent of a child’s brain develops by the age of 5. And 85 percent of a child’s intellect, personality and social skills are developed by that age. “It was a bubbling of research that kind of came and hit the tipping point,” Goettsch said. “That caused our community and many like ours to stand up and begin looking at it and making plans to implement change and improvements.” A handful of nonprofits and organizations in Marion and Polk counties have plans to expand their programs or have already done so, reaching more young children during their formative years.
Parents remain the main ones responsible for their young ones, however. The choices they make — from how frequently they read to their child to choosing a quality preschool — can affect their child. It’s why many local efforts are focusing on educating parents and caregivers about early literacy. Some organizations also aim to educate parents about finding a quality preschool, as in Oregon there is no state oversight or regulation for part-time preschools for 3- and 4-year-olds. No law requires staffers to have background checks. Nothing requires facility inspections to ensure safety. And there are no minimum requirements for teacher qualifications or training.
The Marion County Children & Families Commission has taken a number of steps to promote early childhood literacy in the past few years — starting the day a child is born. There were early-childhood literacy efforts before, but many were targeted to specific audiences. There was no coordinated, comprehensive effort to seek out and support all families. “We want to lift up and support all kids and all families,” Goettsch said. The commission aims to educate families and caregivers about why early childhood literacy is important and how to encourage early literacy skills. They also want to help provide resources and support. “We want kids to be ready for school, and we want parents to have a greater understanding of what building early childhood literacy is,” Goettsch said. Children that are read to three or more times a week are twice as likely to show three or more emerging literacy skills, such as recognizing letters of the alphabet, according to a study for the National Center for Education Statistics. One way literacy is being promoted locally is in doctor’s offices. “You see the doctor as a professional,” Goettsch said. “They’re there, knowing what’s important for your kid’s development.”
Five pediatrician’s offices in the county are participating in the national Reach Out and Read
program, according to the program’s Web site. The effort promotes literacy by having doctors answering parent’s questions and giving out books during the 10 wellness checks children usually have between 6 months and 5 years old. “It comes at literacy from another angle,” said Joanna Ristow, a special-projects coordinator at Willamette Family Medical Center. “It opens up the dialogue for them with a parent. Do you read at home? Do you have access to books?”
Other local literacy efforts include:
-Creating reading circles in the waiting rooms at the Department of Human Services.
-Creating small libraries of 50 age-appropriate books at home day cares.
-Supporting the United Way’s literacy efforts, called Born Learning.
-Offering a free early childhood literacy symposium Oct. 18 for early childhood educators and
The Salem Public Library, a longtime supporter of early-childhood literacy efforts, also has a
host of programs for young children and families. Parents of new babies at the Salem Hospital are given a board book and materials about early literacy, which is funded by Comcast and the Salem Public Library Foundation. “The best time to start teaching them about books and how to handle books is right after birth,” library spokeswoman Sonja Somerville said. “If you wait until you’re in school, (you)’re already behind the curve.” The state also has taken steps to promote early literacy at libraries, narrowing who would be served by the Ready to Read grants, said MaryKay Dahlgreen, state program manager for library development. The grants are used to support any programs for infants to 14-year-olds; in 2007 the Legislature approved funding stipulations so that the grant funded only summer reading for children from birth to age 14 and early literacy programs from birth to age 5.
Research has shown that “if we focused on those two things, we could be pretty assured that
we were really having a strong impact on children’s reading,” state librarian Jim Scheppke said.
The state also is providing better funding for the population-based grants. Every library that wins a grant now receives a minimum of $1,000. And overall funding went from an average of 83 cents per child per year to $1 per child per year. “It’s one of the things we do best,” Dahlgreen said of the focus and support for early childhood literacy. “Children’s librarians have a particular expertise in literacy activities, and more and more children’s librarians are being trained on specific literacy practices.”
Head Start for birth to age 3 At least one local agency that runs Head Start, a free preschool program for low-income children ages 3-4, is planning on applying for funding to start a similar program for birth to age 3.
Called Early Head Start, the program helps low-income families during the earliest years of a child’s life, starting as early as a mother’s prenatal care. “We’re really in a moment now that early childhood is the way to go,” said Jon Reeves, director of Community Action Head Start. Early Head Start began in 1995 — about 30 years after its preschool-age counterpart Head Start began — to serve families with children 3 and younger. Like Head Start, it takes a two-generational approach by providing support, services, education and referrals to low-income families. Research in 2002 found that the program had positive effects on low-income families with infants and toddlers, with significant impact on language development between 2 and 3 years old.
Last year, a federal act expanded the Early Head Start program, and at least one local agency
aims to capitalize on that. Oregon does not fund Early Head Start programs. There are no Early Head Start programs in Marion and Polk counties. Oregon has 16 Early Head Start programs, according to the program’s Web site. There are more than 200 Head Start programs in the state.
Family Building Blocks
Family Building Blocks, a nonprofit program in Marion and Polk counties, has child abuse prevention programs that help at-risk families by providing support, intervention and outreach. It serves 120 children in the therapeutic classrooms and 150 others through home visits and outreach, with ages ranging from 6 weeks to 5 years old. It’s one of the few programs in the two counties that serves at-risk children younger than 3. “Our goal is to help these children be ready for kindergarten,” executive director Sue Miller said. “It works because the parents are here voluntarily. They want to do something better for their children.” The program’s therapeutic classes for young children differ from other early childhood programs, as they focus on the social and emotional development of a child. “These children are coming from very challenged families,” Miller said. “Frequently, it’s the social and emotional behavioral issues that present themselves for these young children.” The preventative programs recently expanded to serve 70 more children in Polk County, including 30 in therapeutic classrooms and 40 through home visits, she said. The prevention programs are almost completely funded by private donations and supported by a large volunteer basis; about 400 people volunteer each year, with close to 70 volunteering each week in a classroom.
Last year the Legislature expanded Head Start to an additional 3,068 children statewide, a $39
million expansion over two years. That increases yearly spending from $28.4 million in 2006-07 to $54 million in 2008-09. An additional 400 students in Marion and Polk counties will have spots in Head Start programs because of the funding. In all, about 1,470 students in the two counties will have seats in Head Start programs thanks to state and federal funding. “Kids are given more of an even playing field if they’re given that preschool experience before they go to school,” Reeves said. The program is successful because it prepares low-income students and parents for the public school system. Head Start has home visits, connects families with resources and teaches parents to advocate for their children, he said. And children build skills in the program, according to a research brief by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. One national study found that Head Start cut the achievement gap nearly in half for pre-reading skills. Another study found that, by the end of kindergarten, Head Start students had doubled their vocabulary. “There’s not a whole lot of comprehensive programs out there that serve young children,” Reeves said. “Head Start … supports families and children.”
maryan@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6750
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